Painters’ District Council 2 organizers turn two major projects to win work for union painters

Columbia, Mo – As a result of the diligent efforts of the Painters District Council 2’s new Organizing Department, two projects that were originally to be done non-union will now be done with union painters, and a major non-union painting contractor has decided to become a union contractor.

Along the way, the organizers set a new high watermark for investigative work designed to bolster their arguments about using union labor.

[frame src=”” width=”250″ height=”150″ align=”left” style=”2″ linkstyle=”none” title=”COLUMBIA, MO – AN EMBARASSING BANNER was part of a targeted public relations campaign by the Painters District Council 2’s organizing department to call attention to the school board’s reneging on its “buy local” pledge for its school bond issue. Ultimately, the non-union contractor from Kansas City that won the bid opted to sign a contract with the Painters Union. Holding the banner, from left, are Painters Local 1185 members Bobbie Benedict, James Shaw, Business Representative Curt Koelling, and Mindy Nation.”]The two projects involved were here in St. Louis and in Columbia, Mo. In St. Louis, it was a multi-million dollar repainting of the Eads Bridge, the oldest steel bridge in the country. In Columbia, the school board changed its “use local labor” rule to allow out-of-area contractors to bid against local contractors.

In both instances, the Painters new organizing staff used modern investigative tactics to ferret out information that is seldom seen by the public to challenge contract awards. They also used the information in a planned, systematic manner to help decision-making bodies understand that perhaps they made wrong decisions.


In the case of the Eads Bridge, a multi-million dollar repainting contract was awarded to a non-union Minnesota contractor, ignoring the fact that local painters are reeling from up to 40 percent unemployment. However, structural changes were discovered which meant the bid specifications had to be changed and the original painting-only winning bid voided.

The organizing staff then went into overdrive: they thoroughly scrutinized the new bid specs, investigated paint coatings and sand blasting techniques required of different paints, attended all public meetings about the project, and established a great working relationship with METRO’s contracting officer of engineering and construction. “Many think that organizing is just signing new company to our union. This is one part of our job description but just as, or even more, important in the securing of working hours for our members,” said organizer George Mann

The combined efforts of Organizing Director Keith Powell and organizers George Mann and Business Representative Dave Doerr paid off: The entire job was rebid and a local union contractor, St. Louis Bridge Co., which uses union painters, won the $36,326,411 job. Many thousands of hours for union painters will be created.

As an aside, while the rebidding was underway, Powell and Mann had several discussions with the non-union Minnesota contractor who they were able to convince that should the company win the re-bid, they would indeed use local union painters. “That in itself was a major victory,” said Powell, “helping a non-union contractor understand the wisdom of using skilled union painters. Mann added, “When the new bids were opened the organizing staff know right away their hard work paid off. The non-union contractor didn’t even submit a bid!”


In Columbia, Mo., the local school board had a traditional policy of using local labor for all its work with a logical reason: local taxpayers supporting the school would see their money spent in their own community, helping their neighbors and the local economy.

In early 2010, Painters Local 1185 in Columbia was approached by the school board to back a proposed $138 million bond issue that would include, among other things, building a new high school and elementary school, plus major renovation work throughout the school system. They promised that all the work would be done locally, as had been their practice for many years. Local 1185 endorsed and supported the bond issue.

However, after the bond issue passed in April 2010, Assistant Superintendent Nick Boren helped to convince the board that “hiring locally” and using a locally selected general contractor to monitor all the work was inappropriate. The board surprisingly changed the decades-old rule.

Boren then hired a Kansas City construction management firm and ultimately let the work to a non-union Kansas City firm.

The painters organizing department joined with Local 1185 Business Representative Curt Koelling and began a major investigative effort and public relations campaign to challenge the school board’s decisions.

Focusing on Boren who quietly lobbied for the changes, the organizing department and their four-man staff of Powell, Mann, Christopher Simonds, and John Raferty first pulled all the bid specs, minutes of all board meetings and news articles to analyze what had really happened. A reluctant school administration at first refused to provide documents, but the organizers filed a Freedom of Information request and won the right to have them.

They began attending all school board meetings, asking probing questions and revealing information their research had discovered.

They also began handbilling in the community, using the caricature of Mr. Burns, the skinflint money-hungry character on the Simpsons to ask the question: “Why is Boren stimulating the Kansas City economy by spending millions of Columbia taxpayers’ dollars there instead of in Columbia?” Residents began asking questions of the school board, signaling disapproval of the board’s decisions.

But they didn’t stop there. Painters District Council 2 and Kansas City District Council 3 began contacting the workers at the non-union firm selected for the Columbia work, Cass County Coatings. They also notified the firm and the contractor that they would begin bannering the jobsite, calling attention to the fact that 65 percent of the work was going out of the area.


The campaign paid big dividends. The non-union Kansas City contractor asked the painters organizers to sign up his firm; the school board got the message from the public and awarded other school projects to local union contractors.

As a result of the efforts of both painters’ district councils’ organizing staff and Local 1185 members, 40 Cass County painters are now members of the Painters Union.

“We’re proud of the work of our new organizing department,” said District Council 2 Business Manager Joe Barrett. “We realized that in order to increase our market share, we had to make an investment in people and time when we expanded the organizing effort last year. That investment is now staring to pay dividends.”


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